Photo Credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET
From Migos’ Culture III to Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me When You Get Lost, long hip-hop albums are still being made despite a rise in shorter albums.
When Migos‘ Culture III came out last month, a number of fans took to social media to express praise for the album along with criticism for its length. The almost 75-minute, 19-track album was followed up by a deluxe edition that added five new tracks to the original release, bringing up the album’s length to a little over an hour-and-a-half.
With the advent of music streaming platforms, hip-hop artists have been releasing music at a rapid pace. When songs are streamed, royalties are generated with each play, incentivizing artists to release long projects that will hopefully result in a handful of the songs being placed on official — and fan-made — playlists alike. Lengthy albums used to define hip-hop; many albums deemed classic are these sonic epics, long but rewarding releases meant to satisfy fans who waited for quite some time for their favorite artist to make their return.
The long hip-hop album as both product and medium of artistic expression has become more and more imbalanced in the age of social media and streaming, the former taking precedence over the latter. Fans are listening to — and talking about — music so much faster than they used to. Singles mean even more now than they did before, whether that be through placements on playlists or becoming viral on TikTok. Sure, there has been some anomalies throughout the 2010s: 2015 saw the release of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a challenging but compelling album whose almost 80-minute length found the rapper fusing hip-hop, funk, and jazz in a way that was best experienced listening to in full. But three years later saw the release of Rae Sremmurd’s triple album, SR3MM, a 24-track project that some viewed as a ploy to boost streams — something that Swae Lee disputed in an interview prior to SR3MM‘s release — similar to other albums released that year and the year before like Migos’ Culture II and Drake’s More Life, respectively. But that year also saw the release of a handful of short hip-hop albums, both in tracks and length. From the G.O.O.D. Music rollout that included chart-topping releases like Kanye West’s Ye and Pusha T’s Daytona to Tierra Whack’s brilliantly brief Whack World, 2018 found certain artists challenging the idea that an album had to be of a certain length or have a certain number of tracks in order to be considered as such.
So, where is the long hip-hop album now, and is there still a space for it? Well, judging by the rise in immediate deluxe album releases, there still is. At the moment, the latest trend in hip-hop is dropping deluxe versions of albums immediately after the original is released. A byproduct of the pandemic’s halt on live music performances, deluxe albums served as a way for hip-hop artists, like Lil Baby and Lil Uzi Vert, to maintain momentum following the release of their respective albums.
Brian “Z” Zisook, VP of Content Operations and Artist Services at Audiomack, explained that the purpose of deluxe albums is for labels to help market the album in boosting an increase in streams, as well as bringing awareness to the album.
“Deluxe versions of albums essentially give the label a little bit more time to get that clearance done so that they could get the record out,” Zisook said. “Instead of releasing it as an individual single, they thought, ‘Let’s just add it on to the album to boost up streams for the whole body of work.’”
Being included on official and unofficial playlists only adds to that stream boost. Whether it be Spotify or Tidal, streaming services are curating popular playlists for music fans to listen to, while those fans are also making personal playlists for themselves and their friends. The more tracks your album has, the more some of them may appear on these streaming services’ premiere playlists. Take Spotify’s Rap Caviar, for example. Migos currently has three tracks from Culture III on the playlist: the single version of “Straightenin,” “Having Our Way,” and “Modern Day.”
“If a certain artist has an album with 20 tracks, fans are looking for their favorite songs to add to their playlist,” Kayla Bryant, an A&R who previously worked for LVRN, said.
However, that doesn’t mean shorter rap albums aren’t getting good streams and playlist placements. Two songs from J. Cole’s The Off Season are also featured on Rap Caviar: “My Life” and “Pride is the Devil.” At 12 tracks and a little under 40 minutes, The Off Season is a satisfying listen with a runtime that encourages multiple replays. So it’s understandable that all 12 tracks from the album made the Billboard Hot 100, while also having a couple standouts that are popular on streaming, too.
“I would rather listen to 10 songs that are all dynamic on repeat over and over. We’re talking about an album somewhere between 27 and 42 minutes.” Zisook said. “Whereas, I wouldn’t want to listen to an 18-plus track album that will drain me of all of my energy… I feel it’s probably in my best interest to press fast forward and jump to the next track. I’m probably not going to want to re-listen to that album again.”
Amid criticism of Culture III‘s length, some people pointed out another long hip-hop album that was recently released — Polo G’s Hall of Fame. Despite having one more track than Culture III, Hall of Fame is actually 20 minutes shorter. Both have received similar commercial success: Culture III debuted at No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard 200, while Hall of Fame debuted at No. 1. That Migos is runner-up to a newer hip-hop artist makes sense: the Atlanta trio’s breakout hit, “Versace,” is almost 10 years old; they’ve released four albums (as well as three individual solo albums). They’re a legacy act in contemporary hip-hop, their fans having grown up with them since their rise. Polo G is a younger artist and a representation of the newer acts defining mainstream rap.
Social media rollout also plays a part in this. Building a theme around Hall of Fame, Polo G got two-time Hall-of-Famer Scottie Pippen to narrate the trailer for the album. A few days later, the rapper sat down with Pippen to discuss what it means to be a Hall of Famer.
“The good thing about social media is you can show what you want people to see,” Bryant said. “There are plenty of platforms for artists to use and express themselves that can bring in more fans and help with album rollouts when it’s time.”
This was brilliantly done with another recently released lengthy rap album — Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost. Leading up to the album’s release, Tyler promoted the project with cryptic billboards in cities like Los Angeles, London, and Berlin, that included a number for fans to call. Upon calling, fans were able to hear a snippet of the track “Momma Talk” that appeared on the album.
Tyler is one of contemporary rap’s — and pop music in general — best world builders, using both his music and social media platforms to create very distinct experiences for each of his albums. This was especially the case with Call Me If You Get Lost, which ended up being a Gangsta Grillz mixtape thanks to DJ Drama’s appearance throughout. Tyler harkening back to a particular era of rap mixtape not only resonated with certain fans who also grew up on the Gangsta Grill series, but introduced DJ Drama to a new audience. Despite being 52 minutes long spread across 16 tracks, If You Get Lost debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200.
“I really think it all depends on your intention with your album,” Chris Classik, manager of both Smino and Monte Booker, said. “If you have a strong ethos and the arrangement is thorough, I think the number of songs really doesn’t matter. Tyler just dropped a fire album, and that joint had 16 songs. It just boils down to how it’s put together creatively.”
Despite complaints of length, as well as the rise of shorter album, there’s still a space for long hip-hop albums, especially if you have a loyal fanbase. Some fans do and don’t enjoy albums with a length of anything beyond 40 minutes and more than 15 tracks. Ultimately, it’s up to the artist and intention behind their music that makes an album — whether long or short — worth listening to — and revisiting — in totality, or just briefly listening to each track in hopes of picking out the standouts to add to our playlists.
Christopher K loves curating playlists and is always looking for newer artists to add to his playlists. He also writes about artists you should check out. Follow him @Chrawsomeking.